Since before we arrived in Fiji we’d read of the strict requirements for yachties to follow Fijian village customs so it was with some trepidation that we dressed in our Fijian finery, packed our bundle twigs into a bag and made our way ashore to the Makogai Agricultural Research Station.
The practise of sevusevu is traditional amongst native Fijians in the villages. It is a ceremony that accords a welcome to visitors and both puts them under the protection of the local chief as well as making the village including the waters and beach that front the village lands open to the visitor. Even swimming, snorkelling, fishing, trekking ashore should not be done without first making sevusevu we’d been warned; it’s a bit like knocking on someone’s door back home and asking permission before picking their apples or wandering around their garden but with a twist, that bundle of sticks.
The skipper muttered that climbing in and out of dinghies in a flimsy wrap around skirt, his smart pinstriped sulu, was not practical but at least his was calf length. My green Fijian print sulu wrapped tight around my body from waist to ankle reducing my usual leggy stride to a tiny oriental birdlike tripping. I hoisted the hem knee high and clambered into the dinghy. At the beach we both held skirts high revealing the all important knees that are supposed to be covered at all times so we could paddle carrying the dinghy with our one free hand up the beach out of the water. Donning sandals but removing hats, anything on the head even sunglasses or a touch by another’s hand forms a taboo obstruction between the head and the spirits we’d read, we set off up the grassy slope towards the buildings.
Just above the beach were three Shelterbox tents which had us puzzled until we looked closer at the agricultural station – aside from the decaying ruins of the leper colony the other buildings had suffered much damage in February’s cyclone. A voice hailed us from a wooden building further up and invited us in throwing sofa cushions on the floor for us to sit on. We left our sandals at the door and joined Te and his shy young nephew. Te congratulated the skipper on his very formal sulu and shirt which rather made Kevin’s day.
After a bit of a chat about who we were and where we had sailed from as well as learning a little about our host who worked for the government here at the station but was mostly since the storm clearing up the damage rather than the actual work he was employed to do, that of cultivating giant clams, we asked about making our sevusevu. Te smiled and said he would be pleased to accept it, though if we wanted we could make the five kilometre walk to the actual village.
The half kilo bundle of sticks wrapped in newspaper and ribbon like a small broom is all important. The sticks are Waka, roots of the piper methysticum or intoxicating pepper plant better known by the name of the drink it is used to make – Kava or here in Fiji as Yaqona (yang gona). We purchased four gift wrapped bundles of this mild narcotic in Savusavu market last week specifically for this purpose. The roots are pounded up to a powder, water added, strained through a cloth and then ceremonially drunk. It apparently looks and tastes akin to dirty dishwater but we were relieved that Te was happy to simply accept our gift before clapping with cupped palms and saying over it some words of blessing and welcome in Fijian of which we recognised only our names and that of the island. He then cupped his hands and clapped again three times, this deliberate deep clap is known as a Colo (thombo).
The official ceremonies dispensed with Te called his wife Tala (not certain of the spelling) and we chatted some more finding out about their family; they have a daughter who lives with her grandparents during term time as she is in year eight and attends a senior school in the port town of Luvuka on the north coast of Vitu Levu which is the other big Fijian island. She comes to join them during school holidays. Their nephew will be attending the village school on Makogai and the other yachts in the harbour are from an NGO called Sea Mercy, their crews currently helping rebuild the school.
Te, Tala and their family including Te’s brother who also works at the agricultural station were lucky to escape the cyclone and were evacuated before it hit, however the warning they were given was of a storm so they simply shut the shutters and left. Cyclone Winston was one of the strongest cyclones recorded, cat 5 and devastate a swathe of Fiji when it turned unexpectedly. On Koro eight people lost their lives when their homes were simply blown away so Tala was grateful to find her home still standing, just though all their belongings were scattered across the hillside and ate said his twenty six foot boat had been flipped right over. The tents are for guests who come to help put the station to rights as the building in which we were sitting was their guest accommodation for visiting scientists and was no longer habitable. Looking up we could see where the wooden rafters had moved leaving gaps in the white painted wooden ceiling.
Tala apologised that they couldn’t laden us down with papaya and bananas as they usually did but her crops were destroyed. However she smiled next year… We loved their enthusiasm and optimism. Living on a tiny island with no mobile signal unless you walk up to the point, only rainwater and a generator for electricity their life is not all that dissimilar to the yachties that come and anchor in the bay. Before we left Tala recommended we walk up to the point for the amazing view over to the reefs islands further south – the cyclone had felled the trees around the point and this view was was new and fresh to her as it would be to us. Te then said we should explore the leper colony and walk up the cleared track through the former leper village to the cemetery. He had obviously been working hard to clear trees and keep the grass mown as it was an easy stroll.